“Clouds in a Bag” on View at the National Air and Space Museum’s
Steven Udvar-Hazy Center
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Sophie Blanchard, became a celebrated balloonist and aeronautical entertainer drawing huge crowds to her balloon-based stunts. As fearless and ambitious as her husband, the famous French ballooning pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard, she rode tiny flimsy scaffolds for gondolas that became her style, and she delighted in creating dazzling fireworks, while swinging perilously from the balloon. However, the acrobatics were only a peril waiting to happen. On 7th July 1819 Madame Blanchard inevitably ignited the leaking hydrogen from the balloon. Her aircraft plunged, hitting a roof-top and the tiny gondola flipped and crashed into a chimney stack. She lost her footing and died after hitting the ground.
The petite and “bird-like” Madame Blanchard was also the official aeronaut to Emperor Napoleon and flew a balloon in honor of the coronation of Louis XVIII in 1814. A hand-colored engraving depicting the latter event is part of a recently opened exhibition titled “Clouds in a Bag: The Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection.”
Dr. Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum, said in an interview with The Balloon Journal that Mrs. Kendall amassed over 1,000 works of art, prints, posters, objects, manuscripts, and books documenting the history of flight. “The treasures in her collection provide a sense of the wonder and excitement experienced by those who witnessed the birth of flight over two centuries ago,” said Dr. Crouch. The current exhibition displays a small portion from the collection of over 1,000 pieces donated to the museum by the Norfolk Charitable Trust. This is the first time these early aviation artifacts are on public display since the Smithsonian acquired the collection in 2014. To prevent the prints from fading, they will be replaced by others in the collection during a two-year period.
The exhibit begins with 35 objects made in the 18th and 19th centuries— decorative fans, china, snuff boxes, patch boxes, dance card cases, and so forth, featuring fascinating miniature scenes of ballooning flights, launches, and shows. Down the long gallery wall, 51 prints and 18th century hand-colored paintings trace the notions of flying, the invention of the balloon in 1783, in Annonay, France, and the subsequent “balloonamania” that swept cities in Europe, pulling in throngs of crowds to balloon launches. “Before the French revolution, fashion and balloons pervaded the French society. You could put a balloon picture on anything and it would sell,” said Dr. Crouch, also an award-winning aeronautical historian. “In the early 20th century, after World War I, the airplane was a big deal, and so people who were involved in aviation and interested in history began to collect this 18th century material. It was produced in abundance and available in antique shops,” he added.
While the Canadian-born Evelyn Way Kendall and her wealthy industrialist husband Henry Plimpton Kendall from Massachusetts were great collectors with broad interests, a ballooning adventure that hit close to home may have inspired Mrs. Kendall to collect balloon-themed works. This she did from 1920s to 1960s, until there was nothing left to buy.
According to Dr. Crouch, in 1920, three U.S. Navy balloonists had been blown away across a storm from their Long Island base all the way to Hudson’s Bay wilderness. “The Lost Balloonists, were front-page news. They had to walk up for days, till they finally got to a railroad track. Evelyn’s father William Beal Way, a supervisor with the Canadian National Railroads, was involved in the rescue of these balloonists and wrote a 14-page account of the balloon voyage, its aftermath, and his involvement. His daughter Evelyn was especially fascinated,” said Dr. Crouch. And, in the summer of 1925 when she visited Europe, she may have been drawn to the balloon prints and decorative items on display in antique shops in Paris.
The exhibition is arranged in four sections. The “Four Fantastic Aeronauts” feature the Italian Vincenzo Lunardi, Englishmen James Sadler and Charles Green, and the American Thaddeus S. C. Lowe. As to how he settled on these four aeronauts, Dr. Crouch explained: “I decided to stick to the Kendall collection, and we decided not to use any portraits but only balloons. I was going to include Sophie Blanchard but there were not enough images of her in the Kendall collection.” The paintings capture their spectacular ascents, long-distance journeys, and aerial showmanship, as well as the idiosyncrasies, and comic and tragic situations.
One painting shows the Italian aeronaut Lunardi with actress Letitia Anne Sage and Colonel George Biggin. Lunardi, known to be a ladies’ man, had invited the actress and Biggin to fly with him on June 29, 1785. Unable to take off with the actress’ weight of 200 pounds, the ladies’ man stepped out, leaving the lady with Biggin and encouraged his guests to take a flight on their own! Lunardi did have some sense to give a crash course on ballooning to Biggin, who was not a complete novice. With luck on everyone’s side, the guests landed safely after a two-hour flight in their gas balloon. “In the 19th century, mostly gas balloons were flown because they were efficient and could fly longer. Hot air balloons were used only for brief stunts,” said Dr. Crouch.
And before airplanes were put to military use in the 20th century, the lighter-than-air craft had already been used in war as early as the 1790s by Spain, followed by France, Austria, and the United States. “Balloons in War” documents these events. The idea of aerial reconnaissance had first occurred to US diplomat and scientist Benjamin Franklin when he watched the first humans rise in Paris, but it was Napoléon Bonaparte who launched the first
Air Force in 1794. “I have a whole string of images of the battle of Fleurus between the French and the Austrians, but we decided to use just one for the show,” said Dr. Crouch. Balloons were used in the American Civil War too, and one painting portrays Thaddeus Lowe, the chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, in a battlefield in Virginia.
Another fanciful print suggests the aerial invasion of Britain, which may be reflecting a military issue of the time that troubled many French people—the fortress of Gibraltar, strongly defended by the British, could not be accessed by land or sea. A story goes that, one night in the year 1777, before he invented the hot air balloon in 1783, Joseph Montgolfier was sitting by the fire at his home. A great dreamer, Joseph imagined whether French troops could be lifted and floated by air above the heads of the English, by the same force that was lifting the sparks from the fire. He knew he had an experiment on hand when he also noticed the chemise (or skirt?) that was hanging to dry billow upward from the smoke. “Even before the first balloon flight in Annonay, Joseph had written to his brother in 1782 that flying a balloon would be like putting a cloud in a paper bag,” said Dr. Crouch.
As with anything, there are always comic artists who bring in the humor and laughter by making light of ideas, people, and events. The section on “Balloon in Social and Political Satire” depicts the balloon as a key graphic element to reflect its craze as well as its use to beat the system. One painting shows a hilarious solution to the problem of navigating the wayward aircraft, another, how to escape the prohibition law, and yet another on how to keep spectators entertained—as they wait to watch the tedious and long process of making hydrogen gas using sulfuric acid and iron filings. Early nineteenth century illustrators also had the insight to show a passenger balloon flight ready for a trip to the moon, as well as balloons, airships, and floating shops and bank in the skies!
Scientists and explorers used the balloon as a research tool to learn about the upper atmosphere and Earth, which continues even today and has progressed to learning about the universe. The “Exploring Science in a Balloon,” section has an 1819 etching that depicts the first balloon launch within the Arctic Circle. Another beautiful painting shows the departure of Swedish meteorologist Salomon August Andree and his two young fellow aviators Knut Fraenkel and Nils Strindberg for the North Pole in 1897. The trio disappeared and their last camp was discovered by a passing ship in 1930. Journals and photos found at the site tell details of their horrifying ordeal.
Creative minds in ballooning and those looking for a hobby or an avenue for income found its use as a spectacle or in short recreational rides. For the next century, balloons became popular as a form of entertainment, and the section titled “Celebrations in the Sky” depict coronations, celebrations, and ballooning shows and stunts. The frenzy had flowed into the United States as well. “In 1860, the Japanese sent their first group of diplomats. When they arrived in Philadelphia, the city fathers planned a balloon ascent and they hired Thaddeus Lowe and William Paulin to make flights for them,” said Dr. Crouch about a print that was made by a Japanese painter seven years after the event.
The artwork is not only a testimony to the skills and caliber of these intrepid men and women who braved nature’s elements in a willful craft, but it’s also a testimony to the talent of the painters who hand-colored the sketches to portray the magnificent scenes and gigantic crowds.
A painting shows the brave Elisa Garnerin who would go up in a balloon and parachute down to Earth. She made 30 parachute jumps between 1815 and 1836. “They would always put some weight on the balloon, so after she jumped, it fell
close by and they wouldn’t have to chase it for miles,” said Dr. Crouch. Some women took to doing such shows out of choice and others did them to make a living. After her husband’s death, Sophie Blanchard took to professional ballooning and became a favorite entertaining aeronaut.
In another part of the museum, there is a permanent collection of artifacts, models, artwork, and memorabilia, belonging to the modern ballooning and airship era and an “Airship Corner” is in the works. The two locations of the National Air and Space Museum, in DC and in Virginia, get 9.8 million visitors every year, making it the most-visited museum in America.
For additional information please visit: https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/clouds-bag